Beijing blues

A British schoolteacher tells how SARS put a downer on her Chinese adventure.

Donna Maria Loh

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‘What’s the difference between the words health and illness?’

The children looked at me blankly. It was Easter Monday 2003 and we were beginning a new chapter in our textbooks entitled, ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder – The Winter Blues’. I had started the lesson with fresh vocabulary to set the scene. Then one of my boys started to cough.

‘You have the SARS, you have the SARS!’ the children bleated. ‘Michael, how do you feel?’ I asked, hoping he could differentiate between a subjective state and a medical condition. ‘I have the SARS’, he giggled.

‘How do you all feel?’ I asked the class. ‘We are very worry’, they answered. ‘Give me synonyms for worry’, I said. ‘Scare! Heart-quicken! Frightened!’, they replied. I could understand why the kids were worried. SARS wasn’t exactly a picnic in the park.

The SARS panic was a fascinating, yet frustrating, time to be in China. Despite the government’s attempt to be seen to clamp down on SARS at every opportunity, everyday life was dominated by a basic lack of awareness of how SARS transmits and infects humans.

At school, two of my university-educated colleagues believed SARS could be ‘caught in the breeze’ from vast distances. We were bombarded with often contradictory advice: ‘You must wash your hands every five minutes….You must go outside and exercise…. You must stay inside and keep warm….You must close the doors to stop it flying in…. You must open the windows to let it fly out….’

During times like this, prudence is the key. But equally as important is perspective. The probability of death for the Bubonic plague was 100 percent, for young and old alike. The probability of death for infected SARS individuals was about 10 percent (1).

SARS distracted the world media, while malaria, one of the deadliest diseases, still kills 1.5 to 2.7million people a year (2). How many more lives could be saved if we focused on mosquito nets for poor African children instead of fretting over relatively ineffective paper masks?

Yet perspective seems to have been one of the first casualties of the SARS outbreak. At the height of the panic, my school was like a ghost town. The sanitised corridors seemed longer and wider. The classrooms that normally held 60 lively kids each were dark and soulless.

Walking through Beijing’s muted streets, people were all muffled up. The People’s Liberation Army looked ridiculous in their masks. ‘Has he got the bug? Has she got the bug? I don’t want to stand near him. He looks well dodgy….’ There was a sense of distrust everywhere. It was enough to make me feel depressed – and I didn’t even have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I enjoyed a night out with some British schoolteacher friends, before they headed back to Old Blighty. Some had disobeyed SARS-curfews imposed by their schools in order to attend. Others had been prohibited from frequenting ‘SARS hotspots’ around town. It’s a shame that our Chinese adventure had to end like this.

On a trip to Guilin in April, 24 hours away from Beijing by train, the scale of the SARS panic hit me. Guilin is one of the most beautiful places in rural China, if not the world, where you can spend forever gazing at the age-old limestone pinnacles. But leaving Beijing train station was chilling. Officials were dressed head to toe in protective plastic gear, like they had just walked out of a scene from ET.

Pro-government, anti-SARS propaganda was out in full force: huge billboards showing giant Communist fists smashing down on tables and bright red banners were on display throughout the capital. State TV churned out scenes of fresh-faced youngsters mesmerised by the Chinese flag. ‘I believe only the government and the people can fight this terrible evil together’, said one young student.

The train journey to Guilin was harrowing. I shared a ‘sleeper’ cabin with four other people. Every time someone coughed, everyone else seemed to hold their breath for twice as long – including me. Previously, I had spent an hour on the phone trying to calm my distressed mother. ‘Come back home’, she said. ‘I’ve just seen a documentary, it looks horrible! It’s all spiky and has all these sharp long things coming out of it.’ ‘Mum, that’s what all viruses look like’, I replied.

Guilin was like a fresh breath of air, literally and figuratively. Death City was a world away. It was like SARS never existed here. No masks, no paranoia. Just carefree travellers sauntering around wearing their ‘I survived SARS 2003’ t-shirts…. Then the next morning, I awoke to the hysterical shouting of my hostel manager.

‘You must get out of here by 12pm! The PSB [Public Security Bureau] say you must go! You have come from Beijing, they don’t want you here!’ ‘Ni kai wan xiao! Wo bu bing le!’ (‘You’ve got to be having a laugh! I’m not sick!’), I protested.

Heartbroken and stunned, I packed up my things. I felt like I was the harbinger of doom – I had brought SARS fever to Guilin. But the manager relented after a few hours. My temperature was normal and it was evident she needed my custom. Tourism throughout the rest of China had already come to a standstill. She seemed as pissed-off about the PSB’s orders as I was.

Later I rented a bicycle to visit the surrounding villages – until I was held in a police cordon. Fearing that SARS may be spread to the villages, the police were on orders to stop any foreigners from cycling anywhere. Ten other foreigners were also being detained. It seemed the police didn’t know what to do with us disease-carrying aliens. They just detained us, to be on the safe side.

I hope it isn’t long before China gets back to normal. A bit of perspective goes much further than blind panic. While we take precautions in life, we shouldn’t forget to live.

Read on:

Apocalypse from now on, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Viral scares, by Stuart Derbyshire

The SARS farce, by Mischa Moselle

(1) SARS is lethal for the elderly, Yahoo News, 7 May 2003

(2) Malaria: A Reemerging Disease in Africa, Emerging Infectious Diseases, July-September 1998

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